YOUNG CEO LEADERS – HOW DID THEY ARRIVE, HOW ARE THEY SURVIVING AND HOW DO THEY PLAN TO THRIVE.
Deciding to become an Entrepreneur is a tough decision to make at any age. More so when you are young. It requires a fair amount of planning and brainstorming. The biggest struggle is taking the first leap. Your mind can also play tricks on you. The enthusiasm of embarking on a new adventure is matched by your own inner demons of self-doubt and criticism. In some cases, resistance from family makes it harder.
Sripriyaa Venkataraman, Founder and COO of Global Coaching Lab, spoke to three young enterprising Founders/CEOs who took the decision to plunge into Entrepreneurship at an early age. How did they become CEOs? How did they survive the pandemic? How do they get their teams to aspire for more? How do they take care of their body, mind, heart and soul? How do they manage the zillennials on their teams? These were some of the questions that were answered during the discussion. Their stories of how they Arrived, Survived and Thrived is inspiring.
Veeru Murugappan is the Founder and Director at Coromandel Productions, a Singapore based video content and media production company that specialises in telling inspiring human-interest stories. He is also the co-owner and Partner at Barn Media, a UK based video content and production company.
Born into an influential and well know business family, Veeru was diagnosed with Dyslexia and had to repeat a year of school. He was always told that he would never need to work or that he could always join the family business. But Veeru knew he wanted to do something different. He decided to study psychology and then took up a job in the media with a news channel. He moved to Singapore in 2010 and worked in the sports content and production space. When he was laid off in 2016, a quote from former Canadian Ice Hockey player, Wayne Gretzky – “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take”, inspired him to start his own business. At first, Veeru wanted to prove his family wrong. But he realised that doing work that inspired people served a better purpose.
With Covid-19 disrupting the whole of 2020, Veeru said that it was impossible to get ahead of the sudden change. He could only go along with it. The business required physical presence and the lockdown made this impossible. There was no revenue between April and June, and it was scary. But he adjusted to the situation and decided to keep things simple and take up smaller gigs. This helped the company stay afloat and stay cash positive.
Veeru believes that there are no hard and fast rules to Entrepreneurship, and you do not need an MBA to start. If your business makes sense to you, if you are passionate and have self-belief then that is what really matters, and then the revenue will follow. There is room for everyone. Fierce competition and greed are unnecessary. One can do meaningful work with a handful of people.
Veeru helps his team aspire for more by telling them to celebrate the successes. This will help them during the tough times. He motivates them by reminding them of the human-interest stories that they have worked on and the impact it has had on the person and the team.
Being married to a pastry chef has given Veeru something else to focus on. He also makes sure that he plays tennis regularly and stays connected with his friends. He believes that ‘Switching Off’ at the end of the day is good. He never sleeps with any gadgets around him.
Tony Ehrbar calls himself the (T)entrepreneur and Chief Joy Officer of American Tent, a Wisconsin based tent manufacturing company. An accidental Entrepreneur, Tony found the company on Craigslist and bought it in 2013.
After working in different corporate jobs for many years, Tony felt burned out. After watching an episode of Shark Tank and speaking to a friend who was an Entrepreneur, he decided to dive into Entrepreneurship. He was inspired by the book ‘Second Mountain’ by David Brooks, which talks about how the first mountain is what our family or society wants us to climb, and the second mountain is the one we climb, which gives us fulfilment. He found Entrepreneurship challenging as he had to switch from working with lots of people to working by himself. His team, however, has now grown and he can now focus on the big things and his passion.
Tony’s experience with Covid-19 has been mostly positive. His team took time to reframe the products for their customers. They made a pivot from selling ‘party’ tents to selling ‘socially distanced’ tents. They had to keep cost in line with revenues. There were lots of challenges with supply chain, operations, lead times and shipping. But in the end, he was able to triple his business and his employee strength went from 20 to 50 employees. Tony used to view obstacles and challenges as a failure, but he now welcomes them. The way challenges are perceived is what decides success and failure.
Tony was diagnosed as bipolar. He has accepted this and focuses on his mental health and goes to therapy every week. He keeps his mind occupied by talking to other CEOs. He is part of an ‘Optimize Coaching’ Program and listens to self-help audio books. He also took time off to go on a month-long road trip.
Tony believes that authentic leadership is important. People believe that they need to behave differently at work and at home. He knows from experience that it is good to be the same in both places. He makes sure that he checks in with everybody on his team and lets them know that it is alright to be vulnerable. This has benefitted his team a lot.
Bhairavi Prakash is the Founder of Mithra Trust, a Chennai based not for profit organisation that launched in 2018. They provide mental health information and tools to young people (aged 17-35) in a way that a trusted friend would. As a social enterprise their focus is on providing safe spaces where they teach tools and practices that are self-reflective and self-expressive and promote understanding, empathy, and connectedness, thereby building an individual’s capacity for self-discovery and self-healing.
After completing her Masters in Psychology, Bhairavi became an Intrapreneur and loved the fact that she could create her own vision. She did India’s first ‘for profit’ school mental health programme. In three years, the company was very profitable. But at the age of 28, she felt burned out. She had undiagnosed depression and the next few years was spent doing various tech and consulting jobs. But she was unhappy. Bhairavi realised that depression manifests in many ways. There was still a lot of stigma around mental health and people thought therapy was the only cure. There was also the issue around accessibility. Therapy was expensive and mental health resources were minimal. People also did not know how to identify and use their emotions. She decided to start Mithra Trust. Mithra means ‘Friend’ and she wanted to provide tools and information to people the way a friend would. Whilst her organisation has been shortlisted for many awards, she knows serving with truth and authenticity is what drives her.
Bhairavi had her hands full in 2020. With the world going through a pandemic more people were struggling with depression and not having a safe space to express their feelings. Bhairavi believed in face-to-face meetings, but with Covid-19, she had to think about which parts of the programme could be digitised. She decided to move the safe space online and, also carried out doodle sessions. Much to her surprise, she ended up reaching out to people she never thought she would connect with. People from all over the country were participating and sharing their emotions. She also identified marginalised communities that needed more help than others and reached out to them. Although digital safe spaces, was not the path she originally envisioned, the change happened organically. Bhairavi says we must think about what we can do with what we have.
“What is the world that you would like to see?”. This is the question Bhairavi asks her team. She encourages them to have their own goals. The goal does not have to align with her own, but it must connect their own soul. She makes sure she creates a psychologically safe working space where they practice what they preach. Setting expectations and communicating clearly with her team has worked well.
Bhairavi, Veeru and Tony all agree that despite the challenges, they never thought of giving up. Veeru believes that in Entrepreneurship, if you ever feel that everything is done, you will either stop or it could be that you have lost your passion. And although all three have been young CEOs for a few years now, they still feel like they are ‘Arriving’.
QUESTION IN FOCUS
As Millennials, what is your perspective on Zillennials?
Zillennials are the digital generation, says Bhairavi. They were born into a world that gives them multiple choices and different paths to choose from. They are constantly hustling, doing multiple things at the same time, all while still in college. This is their reality. They feel they need to do this in order to be successful or perceived as successful.
But Zillennials also want to make an impact. Once committed, they give their all. They can do 7 different things at the same time and are intuitive when it comes to social media. It is important to keep Zillennials engaged by giving them the safe space to experiment. That is how they learn best. Their ability to multitask is often construed as disrespectful, but this is not so. Senior leaders need to find common ground with them.
Companies have been working the same way for far too long and the present culture does not suit Zillennials. A culture change is required. People born in this generation want to know why they are doing something. They wish to understand its importance. All communication to them must stem from the ‘why’. Once they are on board, they will be fully committed and passionate.
If you wish to attract young talent, you must speak to Zillennials in a way that they understand. They would like to know how they can add value and what value you can add to them. They are very focused on causes and tapping into that will make them aligned to the company’s goals.
From where you are standing today, what would be your suggestions for people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Tony says to evaluate how successful he has been, he asks himself if what he has been doing brings him joy. Would be Entrepreneurs call him and they have specifics about what they want to do. He always tells them to take a step back and answer a couple of questions – What are your values? What is important to you right now? What are your core virtues? What are your strengths that are going to bring you joy, feel effortless and make you energised? Also saying ‘No’ to things is important. Deciding what you are ‘not’ going to do, is just as important as deciding what you are going to do.
“What is the world that you would like to see?”. This is the question Bhairavi asks her team. She encourages them to have their own goals. She also advices doing an inventory check of ‘what gives you energy’, ‘what is draining your energy’, ‘where is it coming from’ and using those answers to set expectations.